On Tennis: A Big Step in Roger Federer’s Comeback, but a Gantlet Awaits Him
Final score: 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, in favor of Federer, in just 90 frequently sublime minutes.
“The tennis ball doesn’t know how old you are, and it certainly didn’t recognize that he was 35 years old out there at all,” Jim Courier, the former Australian Open champion, said as he headed back to his Melbourne hotel. “That was pretty sweet. Magical actually.”
The numbers were eloquent. Federer had 40 winners and 17 unforced errors. He won 70 percent of the points against Berdych’s second serve and 20 of 23 points at net.
He also faced no break points and won a remarkable 95 percent of the points on his first serve.
But it would be a missed opportunity to let the statistics do all the talking. To the spectators, who included Rod Laver himself in the front row of Laver Arena, Federer also delivered his trademark blend of deftness and punch, flowing to the ball wherever it bounced and then striking it with precision and a dash of venom.
Call it a blast from the past if you like, but the quality of the performance also opened up some real possibilities in the present.
“I mean, it’s just crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” Federer said. “That’s what I was hoping for, because I wasn’t able to do that in the first two matches. Today I was able to. What a difference it was in the feeling afterward. Yeah, it’s a big relief. But like I said at the beginning of the tournament, any result was going to be a good result for me just because I can test myself in a match situation against professional tennis players. That’s what it’s about for me this week.”
To extend his stay into next week, he will need more excellence — and quickly — because he will face fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and then maybe No. 1 Andy Murray in the quarterfinals and possibly No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals.
Get through that gantlet somehow and reach the final, and only then would he be in a position to benefit from Denis Istomin’s upset on Thursday night of the No. 2 seed, Novak Djokovic.
“Roger’s got a murderers’ row of a draw,” Courier said. “Djokovic was on the other side of the fence, but Roger still has so much ground to cover with Kei and Murray and most likely Stan. If Roger plays like that, of course he’s got a real shot. But we’ll see.”
Bouncing back physically at age 35 should not be a major challenge after Friday’s rout, but it could certainly be a challenge if and when the duels get closer and the rallies longer. The fact that playing conditions are quick this year — or, at least, Federer keeps insisting they are — might help keep those second-week rallies shorter than usual.
“I knew from the start I could be dangerous,” Federer said. “In terms of the tournament, I felt the road was long and very difficult, but for one match, I thought before the tournament that I could do something against nearly anybody. Now, can I do it match after match? I still doubt it, but in any case, this result gives me confidence. And we know how important confidence is in tennis and sport.
“I hope I can sleep well tonight because the first two matches it was good and I was happy, but I knew the sensations were not quite there. Today, I was concentrated, and it was like I’d never been away. It was great to be able to experience that again.”
Seeded 17th after playing little in 2016, Federer would have fallen out of the top 30 in the rankings if he had lost to Berdych, who has beaten him at the Olympics, Wimbledon and the United States Open. But Federer now has won their last six matches, and though Berdych remains a fearsome ball striker, he has not won a Grand Slam singles title for a reason.
His nerves have sometimes been suspect at the biggest moments, but his movement has always been suspect at the biggest moments. Federer did a masterly job on Friday of keeping Berdych off balance and on the run: carving acute angles with his groundstrokes and serves, varying topspin and slice and launching surprise attacks on the net from unexpected court positions. He also looked particularly sharp in the forecourt, coming up with half-volley drop-shot winners that Berdych could not put back in play.
Such shot-making generated some wide-eyed looks and appreciative nods from Berdych’s new coach, Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion who won his lone major title late in his career and is trying to help the 31-year-old Berdych do the same thing.
That will be quite a challenge with a promising younger generation on the rise; Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka still in their prime; Rafael Nadal still lurking; and Federer still capable on any given night of making a racket look more like a wand.
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